It is very common for people to point out the fact that “Elohim” is a plural, and therefore claim that all the places in the Torah where the word is used must be referring to multiple gods rather than a single god.
This is naive and wrong.
Similarly, it is also common for people to say that although “Elohim” is a plural, its use is like that of the “royal we” (for example Queen Victoria’s famous “We are not amused” quote) and refers to someone who is important enough to speak about themselves in the plural. Therefore, any usage of the word Elohim must be referring to a singular god – the God of the Christians.
This is also naive and wrong. The Hebrew language does not have such a grammatical construction.
So how should the word be treated?
The word is grammatically a plural, and as such it demands plural verb forms. However, the same word is used as a singular.
The best way to think of this is like the English word “Scissors”. We never talk about “a scissor”. Even when referring to a single item, we still refer to it as “some scissors”. We use plural verb forms too – for example we say “The scissors are over there” rather than “The scissors is over there”.
It is not quite the same, since we can also refer to scissors as a pair of scissors, but hopefully the similarity is enough to make the analogy work.
So how do we know whether to translate “Elohim” as “gods” or “god”? The simple answer is that we don’t. Again, this is similar to the English. If someone says “The car is over there”, you know that they are only talking about one car. If they say “the cars are over there” then you know they are talking about more than one car. However, if someone says “The scissors are over there” you don’t know if they are talking about one pair of scissors or many pairs.
We must use the context in which the word is used. If the verse(s) in question talk about “Elohim” and then say that “he” did or said something then it is safe to assume that it is talking about a single god. If the verse(s) talk about “Elohim” and then say that “they” did something then it is safe to assume that it is talking about multiple gods.
Of course, in the Torah, there are many places where neither assumption is safe…
Anyway, on to actual references.
Here is Psalm 82, in the ASV translation:
82:1 God standeth in the congregation of God; He judgeth among the gods.
82:2 How long will ye judge unjustly, And respect the persons of the wicked? Selah
82:3 Judge the poor and fatherless: Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
82:4 Rescue the poor and needy: Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.
82:5 They know not, neither do they understand; They walk to and fro in darkness: All the foundations of the earth are shaken.
82:6 I said, Ye are gods, And all of you sons of the Most High.
82:7 Nevertheless ye shall die like men, And fall like one of the princes.
82:8 Arise, O God, judge the earth; For thou shalt inherit all the nations.
Now this passage already has polytheistic themes in it, with the talk of God “judging amongst the gods”.
However, it is obvious from reading this that the translation of verse 1 is somewhat tortured – as if someone is trying to find a monotheistic interpretation of it.
If we look at the Hebrew, a direct translation would be…
‘Elohim’ stands in the council of ‘El’ and judges the ‘Elohim’
Here, the first “Elohim” is fairly clearly supposed to be “God”, and the second is fairly clearly supposed to be “gods”. So a better translation would be:
“God stands in the council of El and judges the gods”
This is clearly polytheistic. Particularly if we look at verse 6 too.
This psalm actually shows Canaanite polytheistic belief and their pantheon. The archaeological records that we have from various other Canaanite tribes (of which the Hebrews were one) shows that they had a pantheon consisting of El, the chief god, and his children, which included Baal, Dagon, Chemosh, As[h]arah, Mot, YHWH and others.
Interestingly, Ugarit inscriptions from the time show Asarah as being YHWH’s wife, as well as his sister. Which is a strange coincidence being that Abraham’s wife was also presented as his sister, and the difference between the names of the two being the letter “aleph” (ASRH אשרה [aleph-shin-resh-he] “As[h]arah” and SRH שרה [shin-resh-he] “S[h]arah”).
The Hebrew tribe(s), being native to Canaan (there was no Exodus), had YHWH as a patron, and this psalm appears to show YHWH standing in his father’s court judging his siblings. The “Most High” in verse 6 is “El-yon” or “El most high”.
A similar view (where El is the chief god and YHWH is one of his children) is shown in Deuteronomy 32:8-9
32:8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, When he separated the children of men, He set the bounds of the peoples According to the number of the children of Israel.
32:9 For Jehovah’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.
Again, the reference is to to “El-yon” translated here as simply “the Most High”. This verse shows El portioning off the various tribes amongst his children, specifically giving Jacob’s tribe to YHWH.
This is the standard reading of the traditional Hebrew text, which we refer to as the Masoretic (MT). It is the basic translation that will be found in the King James Version. However, scholars have known for centuries that in the Septuagint (LXX) version, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament or Tanakh made in the 2nd century BCE, the last phrase reads quite differently:
‘When the most High divided the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of Adam (or man), He set the bounds of the people, according to the number of the sons of God (NOT “Israel”!).’
Obviously, the meaning is quite different, and might even have some important theological implications. As it turns out, to the surprise of us all, the Dead Sea texts of Deuteronomy, which date from before the time of Jesus, agree with the Greek LXX version, against the traditional Hebrew text (Masoretic)! In fact, the exact Hebrew of the Dead Sea texts is most interesting, it reads literally, ‘according to the sons of El.’ This divergence from the traditional text is rare, but when it occurs it is surely significant. This means that Jesus and the other Jews of the first century read copies of Deuteronomy that read ‘according to the sons of El,’ rather than ‘according to the number of the sons of Israel.’
Apart from these passages, which support the henotheistic views that we have from inscriptions left by the other Canaanite tribes, there are other clearly polytheistic statements in the OT, such as…
EX 15:11 Who is like unto thee, O Jehovah, among the gods? Who is like thee, glorious in holiness, Fearful in praises, doing wonders?
EX 18:11 Now I know that Jehovah is greater than all gods; yea, in the thing wherein they dealt proudly against them.
DEUT 32:12 Jehovah alone did lead him, And there was no foreign god with him.
PS 86:8 There is none like unto thee among the gods, O Lord; Neither `are there any works’ like unto thy works.
PS 95:3 For Jehovah is a great God, And a great King above all gods.
Which explicitly compare YHWH with other gods and give no indication that the other gods are seen as false, only that YHWH is the best god around.
Exodus 22:28 is usually translated as a singular…
EX 22:28 Thou shalt not revile God, nor curse a ruler of thy people.
However, here the word used is not even Elohim. It is Ha-Elohim – the gods. This must be taken as a plural, not a singular. The correct translation of this verse should be “Thou shalt not revile the gods…”
Additionally, there is the story of the Exodus. In this, YHWH is explicitly described as smiting the Egyptian gods…
EX 12:12 For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am Jehovah.
Now firstly this allegedly coming from YHWH’s own words – so it can’t be explained away as simply that some of his followers believed in other gods that didn’t really exist. Secondly, the apologetic that he was actually talking about smiting the statues or idols of Egypt flies in the face of the Hebrew, which uses the word “Elohim” to describe the Egyptian gods, not any of the Hebrew words for statues or idols.
It is clear that (at least to the writer of the passage) YHWH is smiting other actual gods – the gods of Egypt (whom he has already bested in “miracle competitions” to prove that he is more powerful than them).
There is also the fascinating story in 2 Kings 3 where the Moabites (who worshipped Chemosh – another son of El) are being fought by the Israelites makes a sacrifice to Chemosh and Chemosh has a “great wrath” against the Israelites and drives them back – demonstrating the henotheistic belief that each god is powerful when on his home turf.
3:26 And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew sword, to break through unto the king of Edom; but they could not.
3:27 Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt-offering upon the wall. And there was great wrath against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.
Of course there is finally the classic first commandment…
EX 34:14 for thou shalt worship no other god: for Jehovah, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God:
…where YHWH does not claim to be the only god, he merely says that he is the only god who should be worshipped. He does not say “Worship me because I am the only god”. He says “Worship me because I am jealous”.